Owner Hans Rueffert asks for support during transition
The second-generation owner of the Woodbridge Inn announced earlier this month that the historic restaurant/inn on the north end of Jasper’s Main Street is for sale.
Hans Rueffert, who purchased the Woodbridge with his wife, Amy, from his parents in 2009, said he had hoped to continue the traditions of the Woodbridge, but health problems have forced him to put the Jasper icon up for sale.
“I wrestled with the decision for three months before we put it on the market,” Rueffert said. “I grew up in the restaurant – literally. But my health has reached a point where there isn’t much choice.”
Rueffert has suffered from a variety of health problems he documented on an Internet blog after being diagnosed with stomach cancer first and then a series of brain infections. Well-known for television cooking shows, Rueffert has noted the irony of losing his stomach, which greatly restricts what the chef can eat. He has also published a book, Eat Like There is No Tomorrow documenting his love of food.
Rueffert said he has had 11 major surgeries in the past six years, and each time he was told by his doctors to slow down. But, as the owner of a thriving restaurant and lodge, he has yet to follow that advice.
“There is the stress of running a 100-seat restaurant, where every table wants something cooked at a different temperature and a sauce on the side,” he said. He said he stills gets mentally charged, knowing the restaurant is packed and they have meals to prepare, but physically he worries about continuing to meet the demands on a daily basis.
Interviewed Monday, August 8, Rueffert said he was doing well after complete removal of his stomach this spring, thought to be the final step in a long battle with ailments.
Rueffert said he will continue to operate the Woodbridge Inn until it sells and encourages the community at large and all Woodbridge regulars not to abandon the restaurant, knowing a sale is forthcoming. Too many times, he said, if the public knows a restaurant is for sale, they will quit eating there.
In this case, the restaurant is still fully-operational, but Rueffert recognizes his only choice is to slow down. “Our hearts are in the right place,” he said. “But we can’t do it anymore. I hope our regular diners will keep supporting us while we are transitioning.”
Recognizing the heritage and history of the Woodbridge in Jasper, Rueffert said he is open to public input and assistance finding a new owner who will be the right fit for a restaurant that anchors one end of downtown.
“I am aware that the Woodbridge has been a huge part of this community,” he said. “I know people who have told me recently that they have celebrated all 20 of their wedding anniversaries here.”
Rueffert said last winter they opened the restaurant during one of the worst snow and ice days to accommodate a family that always celebrated a member’s birthday there.
The Inn across the wooden railroad bridge from downtown Jasper opened in the 1880s as the Lenning Hotel and boarding house. Restaurant history tells that for many years it was a summer getaway for Floridians escaping tropic heat.
Joe Rueffert, with his wife, Brenda, bought the Woodbridge in 1976. Escaped across the Berlin Wall from communist East Germany while the German state was partitioned, Joe Rueffert had traveled around the United States a good bit before landing in Atlanta as the first German, non-Jewish, food and beverage director of the Standard Club. He worked at the club 12 years before buying the Woodbridge Inn with his wife Brenda.
When Hans Rueffert talks of growing up in the restaurant, he means that literally, as the family lived in upstairs quarters, and his mom and dad had a “12-step commute” to work every morning. Hans said he can remember being “Dad’s right hand man” when he was as young as seven, working alongside his sister, Sonja, in the Woodbridge kitchen.
“When I was seven or eight, I was boning trout and breading chicken, and now my children are helping out,” he said.
Upstairs living quarters at the Inn have since been converted into more guest rooms, but an ideal new owner might want to again house a family upstairs. Rueffert said he envisions someone looking to acquire a career and a home in the same purchase as being an ideal buyer.
Back when the Ruefferts lived above the restaurant, Joe was notorious for wandering into the restaurant at any time, even on off days when he had been doing yard work in the back. “Dad would come in with no shirt and suspenders after working on his marble sculptures in the backyard and walk around and talk to diners,” Hans said.
Aside from the 100-seat restaurant with three dining rooms, the Woodbridge property includes a separate lodge with 12 guest rooms, six guest rooms above the restaurant, a swimming pool, a koi pond, a greenhouse and garden where many of the herbs used in the kitchen are grown. The restaurant and inn employ eight full-time and twenty people in total.
“A property like this only comes around once every 100 years,” Rueffert said.
The price is listed at $1.3 million, below the $1.7 million appraisal.
Hans said the Inn’s recent addition of “blue jean cuisine,” encouraging more informal dining with lower priced menu items, especially on Tuesdays and Thursdays, has kept the Woodbridge on solid business ground, even as the tough economy has hit many restaurants pretty hard.
Hans said his father would never have tolerated casual dining at the Woodbridge and often ejected patrons for wearing hats. “Dad felt having a hat on in the dining room was an insult to every woman in the restaurant,” Hans said. Now, on blue jean cuisine nights, casual attire, even hats, are deemed acceptable.
Once the sale is complete, Rueffert said he will begin his slower lifestyle, still working on television shows centered around his Eat Like There is No Tomorrow cooking philosophy and teaching cooking classes at Piedmont Hospital cancer centers.
“I am an anomaly very much,” he said. “I shouldn’t be alive. No one thought I would survive what I’ve been through, so I do anything I can do to help people going through it now.”
For more information on the listing, the restaurant and Hans, see his blog at http://hansrue.blogspot.com/